La Niña. El Niño. Whatever. It always sounded to me like a soundbite for the media more than a real predictor of local weather. Sure, the temperatures of the ocean currents surely have profound effects on the planet’s weather, but how much they affect things like snow quality for heli-skiers is is another thing entirely. Or so I thought.
I was always a cynic of long term weather forecasting. Then last winter happened. I don’t think I’ve had more face shots in a single winter in my entire life. Nearly every day was a powder day. And all the North American skiers I talked to - from Aspen, to Jackson Hole, to Banff to Revelstoke - had the same experience. By February, I found myself asking: “Now, was this a La Niña or an El Niño season? ‘Cause whatever this is, I want another one!”
Last winter, demonstrated in the above photo from CMH Gothics, was a strong La Niña, so this year when August rolled around and I heard La Niña was in the forecast, I started getting excited.
Curious about long range forecasts, I looked at the usual places. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center anticipates above normal precipitation and snowfall in parts of the Pacific Northwest (a good thing for heli-skiers), with equal chances for above or below average precipitation for the southern US Rockies of Colorado and Utah. For skiers interested in weather predictions, it’s worth checking out NOAA’s maps of precipitation and temperature. The map below is NOAA's the predicted precipitation for the USA this coming December through February:
For a more applicable insight into how much long term weather prediction can foecast ski quality, I looked up Joel Gratz, a skier and meteorologist who has combined his passions into one of the web’s most followed ski websites, Colorado Powder Forecast. He has an immense following, and his visionary approach is profiled here in Colorado's Denver Post.
I asked Joel straight up: How much can skiers rely on La Niña/El Niño to forecast skiing quality for an upcoming winter? For example, would you base purchasing a season pass or a ski trip based on La Niña?
Joel replied: “Weather is only one factor I look at when deciding to purchase a ski pass or plan a trip. Meteorologists can somewhat accurately predict snowfall patterns during seasons with a strong El Nino or La Nina. But this season features a weaker La Nina compared to 2010-2011, so confidence in a snowfall outlook for the winter is lower than last year. Ultimately, the quality of skiing comes down to each individual storm, which aren't predictable more than about a week ahead of time.”
Gratz wrote an article on La Niña for Skiing Magazine and, while he’s not a big fan of long term weather forecasting as it relates to ski quality either, he did make this general - and if you’re a skier, highly exciting - statement: “For North America, La Niña has some predictable consequences for snow during the winter: it snows a lot.”
To give heli-skiers some real information on the World’s Greatest Skiing, I sent Joel snowfall data for the Columbia Mountains near CMH Heliskiing areas going back as far as the 70s. From the reports, he looked at for Mica Creek weather station near CMH Monashees, he had this to say: “In short, it looks like La Niña signals at least average or well above average snowfall.”
That's saying something - average snowfall in the Columbia Mountains is utterly epic. His quick study agrees with Environment Canada’s predictions, visible above in their precipitation forecast map for this coming December and January, which puts CMH Heliskiing areas in the red and white zone for normal or above normal precipitation.
What about you? Is the La Niña forecast changing your winter plans?